Why can’t more studios add anti-phobia modes?


As Horizon Forbidden West’s Burning Shores DLC adds a mode for those with a fear of deep water, Vikki wonders, if Guerrilla can do anti-phobia modes, why can’t more studios do the same?


I learned a new word this week: Thalassophobia. It’s the term given to the persistent and intense fear of deep bodies of water, including the sea, oceans, and lakes.

I came across it not in a thesis or an academic paper, but in a news story about Guerrilla Games’ new Horizon Forbidden West DLC, Burning Shores. As part of a concerted effort to ease players’ discomfort when taking Aloy beneath the waves, the team has implemented a “thalassophobia mode” that improves “underwater ambient visibility” and enables Aloy to breathe indefinitely when under the water “regardless of story progression”.

I may never had heard the term thalassophobia before, but I’m sure I know what it feels like. I know partly because I’m asthmatic, and partly because after spending an entire day endlessly murdering and remurdering Emma in the underwater section in Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, I’ve had a fear of any in-game segment that makes you hold your breath underwater. Specifically, it’s the ‘running out of breath and drowning as your body tenses up and goes into death spasms’ bit that freaks me out, but perhaps unsurprisingly, my head doesn’t make the distinction, and it’s now simply a blanket fear of any in-game activity to do with water.

It’s not, however, a phobia for me. That means that while I don’t like those sections, I can usually get through them. Spiders, on the other hand? Nope, I can’t handle them at all. Spiders are full-on phobia territory for me, so I can’t cope even if they’re small (although they rarely are). Not even if they’re cartoonified. Not even if they’re “cute”, because trust me: there is no such thing as a cute spider. 

This is why I wasn’t able to play Scars Above. It’s also why I couldn’t finish Child of Light, or barely start Skyrim, or any of the eleventy bazillion other games that shoehorn spiders in them, either as a surprise boss fight or small, swarmy enemies. And it’s so frustrating, especially when you’ve already sunk countless hours into a game you were enjoying and find yourself up against a giant insert-your-phobia-here that abruptly and prematurely ends your adventure.

And it’s so, so much more common than you think. Casting my mind back over just the last few games I’ve played, every single one has at least one prominent feature that may trigger a phobia. Dead Island 2, for example, makes you take on a murderous clown. Resident Evil 4 Remake features snakes, rats, and giant, pus-filled insectoid things. Scars Above has giant spiders that jump and hiss, as does Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Even the seemingly benign indie mining game Wall World has subterranean chambers with walls of small holes that could really upset someone with trypophobia.

And look, I get it: if you don’t like the sight of blood, you probably shouldn’t fork out for a zombie game. If you don’t like spiders, Grounded probably isn’t for you (I’ve played it for work and in spite of the [much appreciated] arachnophobia mode, the way the legless spider-blobs move and hiss is still too upsetting for me, sadly). But if you bought the sci-fi shooter Scars Above, I reckon it’s fair not to expect to encounter giant hissing spiders that fling themselves at you.

Swimming in Horizon Forbidden West

Guerrilla Games aims to ease phobic players’ discomfort during swimming sequences with greater visibility distance and the ability to breathe indefinitely. Credit: Guerrilla Games.

It surprises me, then, that studios don’t do more to help ameliorate the impact of phobias on their communities. Don’t get me wrong; I know there are a lot of phobias, and maybe the idea of tackling them feels a little like pulling on a sinister loose thread that may have no end. But given the industry’s propensity to lean heavily on some of the world’s most pervasive phobias – spiders, snakes, dogs, rats, heights, and tight spaces immediately spring to mind – and turn them into adversaries – both actual and environmental – it makes me wonder how many other thousands of otherwise happy players are being forced to abandon a game they had really been enjoying.

Furthermore, we know that there is an appetite to offset phobias because some studios are already doing it. Obsidian, Guerrilla, House Flipper developer, Frozen District – they’ve all gone beyond the (wonderful) community mods that help edit out panic-attack-inducing features and hardwired anti-phobia settings into the game themselves. Not only do these teams acknowledge the impact some aspects their games may have on unsuspecting players, but they’re also trying to mediate that harm, too. Which leaves the question: why don’t more studios do the same, particularly if a game includes a surprise phobic element that players may not be expecting?

Is it time-consuming? Yeah, probably – especially if you factor in adapting the way something sounds or moves, too. I don’t pretend to know how complex it is to code and design such anti-phobia systems, but my guess is that if it were easy, everyone would already be doing it. But just as design teams are (admittedly, a little belatedly) thinking more holistically about accessibility and making their games playable for people with physical and sensory impairments, isn’t it about time we started making the same concessions for gamers with severe phobias, too?

Vikki Blake has a column every week here at whynow Gaming. You can read her previous dispatch here.

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